Pitchside Europe

Why Spain is the centre of the footballing world

Two cities, three clubs. The world’s best XI of 2012 was comprised entirely of players from Barcelona (5), Real Madrid (5) and Falcao from Atletico Madrid. Or ‘Madrid 6 Barcelona 5’ according to Madrid-based sport paper AS, who prefer club and city one-upmanship.

Not a single player who makes his living in the footballing powerhouses of Manchester, Munich or Milan made the XI. Not one who plays in Turin, Dortmund or Paris either.

Casillas; Alves, Pique, Ramos, Marcelo; Alonso, Xavi, Iniesta; Messi, Falcao, Ronaldo are the chosen few, voted for by their peers from 49 players’ unions worldwide.

It’s an incredible, if awkwardly named, FIFA/FIFPro Team, but it’s partly subjective and arguments will prevail. Why no Philipp Lahm, captain of Bayern Munich and Germany? What about Manchester City’s Yaya Toure, Sergio Aguero or Vincent Kompany? Andrea Pirlo, Giorgio Chiellini or Gianluigi Buffon from Italy?

There’s no Petr Cech or Ashley Cole from Chelsea, the European champions, nor Arsenal/Manchester United’s Robin van Persie, who was outstanding throughout 2012. And what of the Spain-based players who didn’t get in, like Barca’s Jordi Alba and Sergio Busquets?

It’s easier to argue for the inclusion of defenders, harder for any attacker to get beyond Ronaldo, Messi and Falcao.

To the Spanish media, it was proof that the Primera Liga is the best in the world, the most star-studded, featuring the best teams. Spain’s Primera Liga has its problems, but they can wait for another day when news like this breaks.

It was a surprise though, even in a Spain which feels threatened by the continuing global success of the Premier League.

Critics feel the Premier League is over-hyped and self-satisfied, its stars overpaid, and note that not a single Premier League player made the top XI. The underlying global sentiment is that English football has a supercilious air, which isn’t helped by Sky Sports's patronising bleats about the Premier League being the best league in the world.

Critics say Atletico, who were only good enough to finish fifth in Spain last season, were still good enough to win the Europa League and then demolish European champions Chelsea in the Super Cup. That’s Atletico, which has spent a decade selling its best players to English clubs. And since Real Madrid seem to have given up signing Spaniards, the top Spain-based players who don’t join Barcelona are more likely than not going to end up in England. Economics dictates, yet Spain still dominates.

It was a near perfect year for Spain and the many clasicos helped. Barcelona and Real Madrid played each other six times in the voting period, each a globally viewed advert for their talents. The two Manchester clubs met once in the voting period, in an underwhelming title definer at the end of April.

Wayne Rooney and Nemanja Vidic were in the team a year ago, but both had injury hit, trophy-free, years. They were replaced by Marcelo and Falcao. Marcelo also had injuries, but he had the chance to shine in several clasicos – games which are watched on TV by fellow professionals.

Then there’s the national side. Spain are dominant, England dull, so the Catalans who didn’t win the league or the Champions League still played for the best national side in the world. Gerard Pique had his worst year for Barca since signing in 2008, yet he played well for Spain and he’d built up and benefitted from a positive reputation. Reputations count in popularity contests.

How else do you measure the success of individuals if it’s not as part of a team? The best two English teams did nothing in Europe, though they were outplayed and beaten by Spanish sides, United by Athletic Bilbao and City by Real Madrid.

The decline of Serie A has helped Spain, France’s Ligue 1 never has been a major league, while the Bundesliga would surely have been represented had Bayern Munich won a penalty shoot-out in their own home in May.

Getting all XI who play in one country is likely to be a one-off, but the team is likely to be similar next year. And why are Madrid and Barcelona such footballing powerhouses?

The coaching, clubs and culture help. Barca, Real and Atletico Madrid are all huge clubs who can and do pay the top wages. And while there have been recent cases of players going to Russian clubs, or teams in the former Soviet Union or China, if they take the money they kiss adios to any hope of any individual awards or the chance of appearing in a world XI.

The Madrid and Barcelona stars play in cities which have strong cultural connections, shared languages and direct transport links (why do you think British Airways merged with Iberia?) to South America. Three South Americans appear in the list. Daniel Alves was spotted by a Sevilla scout in northern Brazil; Marcelo by a Madrid scout when he was a kid; Falcao came from Argentina to Porto.

If you’re a kid growing up in Sao Paulo or Buenos Aires then that dream move to Europe still means Spain rather than England, where South Americans have a questionable track record. You follow your idols and take a natural stepping stone, often via Portugal for Brazilian players. Barcelona and Madrid are also great cities in which to live.

Not forgetting the coaching. Spain produces better footballers than anywhere else. The weather and number of coaches helps, the facilities too. And the philosophy at Barca, which permeates club and country. That was introduced by a Dutchman, John Cruyff, but even he’s lived in Spain since joining Barca in the 70s. Sorry Johan, Catalonia.

Even the three coaching finalists, Vicente Del Bosque, Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho were based in … you get the picture. It’s a golden age for Spanish football. England? Kay Murray, the co-host in Zurich, comes from Middlesbrough.

Andy Mitten will be blogging for us throughout the season. He contributes to FourFourTwo, the Manchester Evening News and GQ magazine amongst other publications.

Follow Andy Mitten on Twitter!